Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Musings: Reassessing Assumptions

Organic farming is often idealized — and commercially promoted — as producing a better product and treading more lightly on the land. Indeed, folks pay a premium to indulge this perception.

But two recent articles are casting doubt on those beliefs.

The Washington Post has a lengthy piece on organic dairies, which may be much larger and less bucolic than some consumers imagine. It focuses on the Aurora Organic Dairy in Colorado, which has some 15,000 cows producing enough milk to supply Walmart, Costco and other big box retailers.

It was interesting to read that “the USDA allows farmers to hire and pay their own inspectors to certify them as “USDA Organic.” It was also ironic, considering how many of the Hawaii anti-ag folks dissed the seed companies' voluntary disclosure of restricted pesticide use as insufficient.

Basically, the article is saying that the coveted “organic seal,” which boosted annual sales from $6 billion in 2000 to $40 billion in 2015, is based on “an unusual system of inspections” that are pre-announced and funded by farmers.

You mean, it's really all kind of a sham/scam? As the article concludes:

The growth of mega-dairies that may fall short of organic standards and produce cheaper milk appears to be crushing many small dairies, some analysts said.

The mom and pop — the smaller traditional family dairies — who are following the pasture rules are seeing their prices erode,” said [Pete] Hardin, the Milkweed editor. “It is creating a heck of a mess.”

You mean, consumers who have bought the organic marketing speil, but balk at paying a premium, are undercutting the very system they claim to cherish?

My sister, who lives in Portland, likes to buy Tillamook because she sees their cows grazing on her way out to the coast. But it claims neither to be organic nor GMO free. In response to a consumer question, a dairy spokesperson noted: 

Even organic feed for organic farms is extremely difficult to verify as GMO-free because of cross-pollination.

Maybe it's time to revisit the organic standards, and re-assess consumer attitudes. Are consumers truly looking for organic, or do they actually want pasture-raised? Of course, even pasture-raised doesn't pass muster for some, as we saw with the opposition to the proposed rotational-pasture dairy farm at Mahaulepu. (Btw, I ran into this piece about how very little manure leaves well-managed pastures.) 

Do people even know what they want? Or like the barn-raised dairy cows that had forgotten their natural grazing instinct, are we so manipulated by marketing that we've forgotten how to think, how to assess our true needs and desires?
Meanwhile, a columnist with the Daily Camera is writing a multi-part series on the GMO crop ban recently adopted in Boulder, a Colorado county where the sensibilities are akin to North Shore Kauai. The ban was passed, despite unanimous opposition from county open space farmers, including the organic growers.

Columnist Mara Abbott, who spent five months researching the debate, starts by citing a 2015 briefing paper that Colorado State University developed for county commissioners considering the ban on planting GMO crops in the county's open spaces:

[O]rganic crops on six Nothern Colorado farms used 10 times more water, five times more pesticides and released six times more sequestered carbon from the soil than genetically engineered crops.

I was paralyzed. I had always self-identified as a good Boulder environmentalist, and figured that meant that non-organic was a non-starter (and the organic definition excludes GMOs). Now where was I supposed to buy my kale?

After all, the ban's loudest supporters claimed to be fighting for reduced pesticide use and more sustainable cropping methods. Commissioner Deb Gardner specifically cited researching carbon sequestration as a top priority of the transition.

It also turns out that "organic" doesn't mean "pesticide-free." The pesticides just come from natural rather than synthetic sources — and apparently some of those are harmful to honeybees, too. Given that the purpose of an herbicide is to kill weeds, and an insecticide to kill insects, any crop protection practice won't be completely benign. Some natural pesticides are less effective, requiring more frequent applications, and higher overall life-cycle toxicity.

This isn't to brush off the value of organic, but it is to say that agriculture is rarely black and white — and that's actually why diverse approaches are important. Really, the only way to know what is being put on your food is to know the farmer who grew it.

"It's just such a complicated web in agriculture," third-generation county farmer Scott Miller told me. "You can't just say you're going to block one thing and that is going to fix it."

Once again, we're reminded that the world is so complex. Try as we might, we can't contain it into neat little boxes of good-bad. There are no silver bullets, no one-size-fits-all solutions, especially when human nature comes into play. We want to blame the corporations, but the corporations are also us. We want to return to the good old days, but there's no turning back the clock. All we can do is move forward, and try to be honest about the issues and our own choices.

In closing, I'll leave you with this amusing little call to action from the Maui Babes Against Biotech, which typifies the simplistic, reactionary approach that underlies so much conflict:
Yup, nothing says home rule like an email blitz from thousands of miles across the Pacific.


Bill Wilder said...

Let's get those cows into mahalepu. Or would you rather have another mega resort out there? You think omidyar is a farmer? He's a damn developer and that is what he wants out there. Mark my words.

Anonymous said...

A resort would be nice... lots more jobs and beauty in local landscaping too

Anonymous said...

"You mean, consumers who have bought the organic marketing speil, but balk at paying a premium, are undercutting the very system they claim to cherish?"

I don't think you bother to read your own articles. The growth of "big" organic is driving prices lowers and smaller organic dairies are struggling. It's a matter of supply and demand, and not another Joan Conrow imagined hypocrisy/conspiracy.

And you seem to have glossed over the fact that organic dairies don't pump their animals full of hormones and antibiotics. Would it kill you to be honest? DO you think it's reasonable to want to avoid consuming dairy from such animals? Even if you don't, do you think other people should have the choice to avoid added pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics?

And did you miss the part about GMO pollen "loose in the wild" making it harder to certify products as organic?

If you don't like organic fine, but intellectually dishonest articles like this help no one and simply under cut your own credibility.

Anonymous said...

Damn you're good, Joan.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Yeah a resort would be just swell. More low paying jobs for chumps and flips. Anyone who wants to trample nature and build a resort is the problem in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Omidyar is not a farmer or a developer he's a tech CEO. Plus he doesn't own the land he's leasing it and it's designated as IAL. It won't get turned into a resort but having the same people whose doo doo stinks up kiahuna spread lies about a viable ag opportunity is super lame.

Joan Conrow said...

Dear Tuesday @ 12:38,

You might have better reading comprehension if you got rid of that big chip on your shoulder.

You wrote: "The growth of "big" organic is driving prices lowers and smaller organic dairies are struggling. It's a matter of supply and demand."

Yes, and who do you think is driving the demand? Consumers who are attracted to the lower prices offered by "big" organic.

You wrote: "do you think other people should have the choice to avoid added pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics?"

Sure, and they do. There's nothing in this blog post to suggest otherwise.

You wrote: "And did you miss the part about GMO pollen "loose in the wild" making it harder to certify products as organic?"

No, I'm the one who wrote the post, which included that part. But thanks for giving me the opportunity to point out it's kind of a red herring. According to Wayne Parrott, a crop geneticist at the University of Georgia: "The risk for neighboring farms is relatively low. For starters, it's possible to reduce the chance of cross-pollination by staggering planting schedules, so that fields pollinate during different windows of time. (Farmers with adjacent GMO and organic fields already do this.) And if some GMO pollen does blow into an organic field, it won't necessarily nullify organic status. Even foods that bear the Non-GMO Project label can be 0.5 percent GMO by dry weight."

If you don't like me or my blog, fine, but don't engage in intellectual dishonesty to try and skewer me. It just makes you look foolish.

Unknown said...

Processed organic food can contain up to 25% non organic ingredients and still be certified as organic.

Poha said...

Howzit, reading all those links was edifying, mahalo! I saw this just now: et tu, Cargill? Some history here,

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why the organic people are dead set against co-existence. With 8 billion mouths to feed there's room for everybody at the table.

Anonymous said...

Label all the food and let the 8 billion people decide what they want to eat. Doesn't seem that difficult.

Anonymous said...

Fucking haole keyboard tough guys. Go up to Filipinos and call them flips and see what happens

Anonymous said...

@749 I think you're missing the point of the whole article and the fact that labels are themselves misleading. People don't get to make choices with labels they just get sold another kind of branding.

Anonymous said...

As I recall, chemistry is divided into two parts - inorganic and organic (compounds containing the element carbon). All living organisms have carbon as part their makeup. The definition of organic farming can be found at the USDA website. In essence, the organic farmer cannot use any synthetic fertilizer or pesticide. Like to point out that pests do not distinguish between organic or conventional farming. Hence, both use pesticides and neither can say "pesticide-free". Organic farming occupies only a small niche in food production. It is just a marketing ploy advanced with alternative facts by a vocal group.


Anonymous said...

@4:05: "trample nature?" haha, what do you think thousands of cows will do there on the lava rocks and cacti? Many many more jobs than a cruel industrial dairy farm would offer with cows melting in the sun. Low level (low paying) jobs a problem? So dairy workers will be higher paid? Tell that to the many illiterate seniors that graduate (or dont) every year. What kind jobs you like them get/do?

Anonymous said...

There is not just one way.....
Joan, my brother has been in the natural and organic food industry for 35 years and he clearly understands the global need for GMO crops.

Anonymous said...

@11:20 you are right, cows will trample it, but they are cows. I don't have to deal with them at Koloa big save staring intently at all the exotic Hawaiian groceries while bringing the whole ten person vacation entourage through the aisles of an already overcrowded supermarket.

Joan Conrow said...

Thank you, 2:22. That looks like a good film.

Anonymous said...

The Washington Post writer makes several incorrect assertions. No farmer who is certified organic is hiring an inspector to inspect their operation. That is hog-wash.
Inspectors are hired by USDA accredited certifiers. Some certification agencies are State Ag Departments and some are independent, for-profit agencies. In Hawai'i, our state ag department does not do certifications.
The NOP annually audits certification entities. As one dairy farmer in Vermont states in this article, Aurora would never pass inspection in Vermont. Therein is the problem. It is not from paying or "paying off" inspectors, as this article insinuates. It is from failure by the USDA NOP to properly audit the certifiers and also a weakness in the organic livestock rules. The NOSB is currently reviewing and re-writing those livestock rules and thankfully, Cornucopia and other watchdog groups, are pressing for this. The rule is getting better.
A farmer or producer who wants to be certified, contacts a certifying entity. That entity assesses a fee based on the size of the operation. Then the certifier assigns an inspector to audit the operation. The producer pays the certifier and those costs include the agencies charges and the cost of the inspector's actual costs based on time and travel.
My farm is certified organic and I never know who the inspector will be until the appointment is made to inspect. Throughout the year, I am frequently contacted by my certifier to go over my production plan and they are able to drop by unannounced at any time. The annual inspection is very thorough and I better have all of the documentation they require or it can hold up certification. They inspect everything: storage areas, fields, vehicles, packaging, tools, equipment, etc. They can take plant samples from my farm for residue testing.
This Washington Post article is spot on about Aurora Dairy, but very misleading about the Certified Organic process in general. Very.
No product that is certified 100% Organic can have non-organic content. There are different levels of OG classification. Read the labels.
If you really want to know what you are reporting on before forming an opinion on the National Organic Program, you should read the entire Rule and understand it.
Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Marketing Service, 7CFR 205
Otherwise, assertions and opinions are nothing more than assertions and opinions.